schwa

You speak me more than you speak any other sound. And yet you don’t know how to write me. You can’t type me.

I’m not on the internet. I am literally unknown to instagram and most other sites. I’m not on urbandictionary.com. Dude, I’m not on dictionary.com. And yet, without me, you couldn’t talk. You would be very literally out of luck.

Why is this? It’s partly because I’m so unstressed. Linguists love to talk about how I’m always unstressed. Fine, but I’m gonna stress out for a minute up in here!

Yes, this is a column where I explain to you in massive detail just how great I am. And yes, that’s a lot of your attention to pay to, you know, a noise. To a “reduced vowel.”

But look at the craziness you’ve been asked to pay attention to. Sports, royal weddings, cat memes. Look at the goddamn days that have been filling up your news feed in the last few years. National Card Playing Day. National Chocolate Covered Insects Day. National Static Electricity Day. The kind of shit you know they just made up after they realized a day hadn’t been taken so they racked their brains to come up with something original.

What’s more original than that? Me. I don’t have a day. And considering how important I am to you, I deserve a Whitman-ian Song of Myself. And you deserve to read it.

Who am I? I’m schwa. I’m ə. I’m the sound of your two favorite indefinite articles most of the time, the “e” in “the” and the “a” in “a” as in “give me a cookie.” Oh brother, I got so many other names, like short u, ^, the murmur vowel, the indeterminate vowel, the neutral vowel, the obscure vowel, and the natural vowel. On dictionary.com, I’m sometimes u, sometimes uh, so what’s uhp with that?

Whenever it was that some genius decided to name all the English letters, I got the rawest deal of all. Although you use me more than you use any other speech-noise, I’m not in your alphabet.

In a way, that’s not that uncommon. Most of your consonants correspond to a single noise, but all of your five vowels represent varying noises, depending on context.

However, I am the one and only noise that is sometimes represented by all five vowels and even the sixth “optional” one, y. Looking back, I think that’s what hurt me from getting my own vowel. You already had me in all five/six places, why bother recognizing me as an individual?

I know I sound bitter. I admit it, I kind of hate those vowels. I sit there watching while kids sing that song they goddamn love, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” Even when the kids stop signing, they still have to name and use the five vowels all the damn time. Those vowels are all-stars.

They’re the Avengers, and I’m Bucky. They’re the Beatles, and I’m Pete Best.

Not sure if you remember from school, but you were taught the “long” and the “short” versions of every vowel. The “long” is the sound the vowel makes when referenced (a.k.a. sung in the ABC song), and the short is…something else. Eventually you learn that some vowels make still other sounds, and in most cases, these tertiary sounds are less common than either the “long” or “short.” One example is the third “a” sound, which is “ah” as in saw, that sound being less common than long-a as in day or short-a as in cat; another example is the third “o” sound that usually goes with “w” or “u” meaning “o” as in “cow” or “sound,” that sound being less common than long-o as in bone or short-o as in bond. If you heard of me at all, you might have heard of me as a tertiary sound – tertiary as in “third place.”

I am no third-place kind of noise. Hey! I’m not merely talking about my status as the most used sound by English-speakers, period. (For that one italicized “the,” you were allowed to pronounce the “e” as in “bee.”) No, I’m talking about the fact that when you see a, i, or u out in the world of an English-speaking society, I am one of the two sounds you are most likely to be hearing. I’m more popular as “i” than the damn “long i.” I’m more popular as “a” than the damn “long a.” Hey, America, do you realize I start and end your favorite name for your country? By some measures (note the noise in “some”), I’m more popular as “o” than either “long o” or “short o”! Can you believe it?!

Yeah, you may know me as the “short u.” Confession time: I hate that term. I should be “u-alpha.” I am so much more popular than that overrated “long u.” Not everyone realizes this, but “long u” suffers from an identity crisis: it supposedly covers both “u” as in “uniform,” with the “yə” sound in front, and “u” as in “tuna,” without. A lot of dictionaries don’t even distinguish between these. Here’s the thing: with all the damn “un-” words that I begin, I’m still more popular as a “u” than both kinds of “long u” combined.

Here’s where I should admit that some people distinguish between two different kinds of me. For example, if you go to the Wikipedia page on English phonology, you’ll see them correctly name “comma” as ending with me (“ə”), but the vowel sound in “strut” being “^.” Reader, I ask you: who the hell pronounces the last sound of “comma” and the vowel of “strut” even slightly differently? As I mentioned, dictionary.com makes this distinction with “u” and “uh.” (For them, the “long a” is “oo,” as in “goose,” which makes not a gander’s worth of sense.) Reader, it’s a distinction without a difference. Maybe I’m not spending enough time in the hinterlands of the English-speaking world, but come on.

I ought to be “long schwa,” with my own “short schwa,” which is the vowel sound in “foot,” “book,” and “pull.” That’s a short me (and, by the way, nowhere near the ten most popular vowel sounds).

There’s a lot more about me here. Slate did a pretty good job with me. But I’ve got even more to tell you, listen!

I do all kinds of stuff I haven’t even told you about yet. I’m the vowel sound in every “-tion,” as in “action” or “motion.” I give you a bridge between two consonants you don’t usually see together, like, let’s say “Kotb.” You say “is that kotəb?” In the cases of words like chocolate, different, and camera, I often hook you up by getting out of the middle so that you can make them into two-syllable words. The exact sound that precedes “r” is a bit of a touchy subject among linguists (who knew?), but dude, it’s usually me, especially if the pre-r noise is represented by “i” (“stir,” “third”) or it’s part of a suffix, like “ladder,” “razor,” or “beggar.”

Besides those antiquated vowel names, you know the main reason I don’t get the respect I deserve? Because I’m the easiest noise to make. That ought to be my selling point! What happened to the virtues of simplicity? And get this, I’m actually not as easy to make as you’ve heard: when do you hear an animal make my noise? You hear apes go “oo-oo-ahh-ahh” and you hear cats “meow” and dogs bark, but when do you hear me? Only from humans. I’m the most human noise there is. And one last thing: consider the non-verbal, the mentally handicapped, the “mute,” and the like. With many of them, the only real noise they can make is me. So I verify their humanity, proving it every time people doubt it. Admit it, I’m:

Tons of fun!

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